A few weeks ago, a group of expert skiers got caught in an avalanche out-of-bounds at Stevens Pass in Washington. Three died. Freeskier Elyse Saugstad survived the slide thanks to her airbag backpack, a product which is now flying off the shelves at outdoor sporting goods stores. Here Elyse talks about what happened and why she always wears an airbag.
Adventure: In your life as a skier, how many avalanches have you been caught in?
Elyse Saugstad: I’ve been skiing almost 30 years and I have never been caught in an avalanche of significant size. I have been caught in slough and taken for a little ride, but that’s different.
A: When did you start wearing an airbag backpack?
ES: I started wearing an airbag several winters ago. When I competed on the 2010 Freeride World Tour, they gave all the competitors airbag backpacks to use, and I haven’t used anything but an airbag backpack since.
A: Had you used it in an emergency situation before the Stevens Pass trip?
ES: No, I have never had to use my ABS backpack before the Steven’s Pass avalanche.
A: Why wasn’t everyone wearing an airbag backpack?
ES: Airbag backpacks, even though they’ve been around for awhile and are prevalent in Europe, have not become popular yet in North America. That being said, I think the Stevens Pass incident has received enough media attention that people are now aware of the necessity of riding with them and all the shops that are carrying them have been selling out the past few weeks.
A: Can you describe, minute by minute, what you saw and heard during the Stevens Pass avalanche? And how you knew when to use the airbag?
ES: Avalanches happen in seconds, and it all went very quickly. That morning I was skiing with a few other friends in-bounds at Steven’s until we met up with the larger group at about 11:30 a.m. Then we headed out to take a Tunnel Creek road lap. We discussed what we were going to ski (the safest route down), how we were going to ski it, and initiated a buddy-system. The aspect of the slope we were going to ski was at an avalanche rating of considerable—which on a scale of one to five, it’s a three. After four of us skied the first section of our route to a safe zone in old growth trees, the 5th skier set off a slide on top of us. That skier and 3 of us were caught, while the 5th skier was able to situate himself between 2 tree trunks and hold on so he was not swept in. The avalanche was approximately 2700′ in length, 32 inches deep at the crown, and propagated 200 feet wide. It was a nasty avalanche as we were swept through heavily treed terrain and into a tight creek bed that finally spewed us out at the bottom.
With regard to myself, I noticed the avalanche coming from the trees above, and within probably two seconds I found myself getting caught. My buddy to my right screamed at me, “Avalanche, Elyse, avalanche!” which also helped trigger my brain that this was serious. Within about two seconds of realizing I was being pulled in I pulled my ABS trigger. The avalanche was not a smooth ride, it felt like I was in a washing machine. I was tossed all around over and over, not really sure which way was up or down half the time. I felt my body hit a few trees on the ride, but none of the encounters were blunt. The avalanche sped up and slowed down at times, but probably lasted about 45 seconds in all. That gives you a lot of time to think, and even though I had some bad ideas of what may fate could be I ultimately tried to remain calm as to not waste energy or breath.
When I came to a stop I was buried completely except for my arms and face. The snow was like cement. I was unable to even lift my head up as it was packed in the snow so tightly. Once again I just tried to remain calm knowing that eventually someone would get to me, which took about ten minutes. After the first person got to me and unburied me the others in our party started to arrive to the scene and we began to find the other buried victims. One was no more than 3 feet to my left, several feet down, and another about 30 feet above me, about 5 feet down. The third victim was another 300 feet below us. I walked away with bumps, bruises, and scrapes, but ultimately no major injuries. I was very lucky.
A: More people are going into the side and backcountry. What are the most important things to remember in terms of safety?
ES: There is no guarantee of 100 percent safety in the mountains. The only thing we can do is use our knowledge, best judgment, and tools to help us to mitigate the dangers. Checking the avalanche forecast and understanding the terrain and snowpack you are going to ski is imperative. Everyone must have all the necessary proper equipment such as a transceiver, shovel, probe, and what will most likely be added to that list, an airbag backpack. It must be noted though that an ABS backpack is for when everything goes wrong, rather than being an enabler to ditch common sense and forego avalanche safety. Also, when entering side-country there can be a false sense of security, one must not become complacent just because you’re next to a resort.
A: Jeremy Jones told me that he considers an airbag the first thing he takes with him into the backcountry. Do you agree?
ES: I do agree with Jeremy, I would not enter the side or backcountry without an ABS airbag, along with my transceiver, shovel and probe. It saved my life.
A: Is it hard to keep skiing after loosing friends–and your own close call? How do you make sense of it?
ES: Skiing is more than just skiing; its a way of life and a sense of community for myself and my family. If I were to stop skiing the friends that I lost would be not be honored, and they would be telling me that I need to keep skiing pow for all of them. In a time of tragedy sometimes it’s hard for people to notice the abundance of positive things that are derived from that thing that caused such pain, and I like to focus on the good things in life:) I have already started filming/skiing again and I will admit I’m not 100% in my head, but I think the only way for me to overcome what happened is to get right back on the horse and ski. RIP Chris, Jim, and John.